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Name: Betty Lee Genre: Young Adult Speculative Fiction Title: THE BOY WHO EATS SADNESS
When two ex-best friends visit a grungy motel in Iowa one after another at the tail end of summer, a strange teen takes something from each of them promising they won’t miss it at all.
They won’t remember anything either. That’s how the teen in Room 212 hunts. But he’s not hunting what you expect. And lucky for him, Roxy and Thomas have what the teen feeds on in spades.
After Iowa, everything seems kosher—at first.
Roxy feels better than she has in years as if her body doesn’t need the life-saving meds that were keeping her HIV under control anymore. So she stops taking them.
And Thomas is happy too. He’s not even thinking about the thing that had him in knots for months: the abortion and the baby-not-baby he accidentally fathered the first or second time he had actual sex.
But when Roxy and Thomas spot a pattern of violent interruptions to their mostly idyllic first week of college, the two former best friends realize they must return to the motel in Iowa where they both had mysterious run-ins with a strange teen or the happiness they want will always be tainted by ugly things.
You always remember your first, those big talkers would say after they’d show up for a night at the motel and get caught by my scrawny self with some lady other than their wife.
You don’t say shit like that to a twelve-year-old kid who’s just microwaving the snack he eats most nights while watching bad TV in his room while he parents works.
These big talkers, they’d say it all sad. Like they were trying to tell me something. Or beg for something.
Week after week, year after year, they’d say this stuff like they believed it.
But that’s crap, eh, Cabron?
Me, I remember waking up with air in my mouth the taste of abuela in her coffin, all powdered and cobweb stale. Hunger like a rage inside me. I don’t brush my teeth, or clean the crust from my brown eyes. My boxers are sitting mostly on my hips before I push my way out of Room 212, through this cut of dusty light. It’s the kind you notice because it’s full of things we don’t normally see with our eyes until things shift just so.
That dusty light follows me. I move through it.
Outside, this old woman sits by the pool, smoking even though that sign I had to put up there two summers back tells her not to do it. Most days, I would brush past, head off motel property, to meet one of my boys in town.
But that hunger, Cabron, that hunger whispered to me. In my mother’s voice.
Duérmete mi niño
duérmete mi amor.
Duérmete pedazo de mi corazón.
And that’s why I did it. Why I crossed the line and why that woman, smoking and crying, why she turned that chlorine pool I used to have to clean all salt.
That’s all I remember. Not the taste. Not the comfort. Only my mother’s voice in song and salt water.
But yeah, of course, Cabron, you knew it would go down like this, didn’t you? You knew it was crap. But you fed it to me anyhow. And like one of those sad, desperate people, I listened to you.
What you told me about husks in Room 212, I’ll tell you, it made a lot more sense the morning after. That woman, she blew away like one of those old school cartoon desert tumbleweeds with a smile on her face—and when the hunger flashed back double strong, I started searching the motel for who’s next.
I’m leaning against my hand-me-down Chevy Malibu station wagon’s back bumper, arms crossed, knees braced together. Not because I’m wearing a skirt, but because I feel safer. The smell of gasoline in my nose is screwed up comfort, but it’s still comfort. And I need it today.
Goodbyes are hard.
My dad clears his throat.
I try hard to remember all the reasons this moment should feel so good.
But first, one more pizza dinner from the place mom likes but dad hates, one more walk through the neighbourhood, one more night in my childhood bedroom where all I don’t have to worry about leaving behind memories of sleepovers, or boyfriends, or any of that high school nonsense. For me, it’s a room with painted walls. That’s it.
All my furniture is in the U-Haul. It weighs the thing down more than I thought.
Dad clears his throat again and I’m drawn out of my mind and back to the problem at hand. Getting my stuff to college all the way across the country. From Maine to Colorado.
“Looks pretty low, don’t you think?” I ask, shifting my weight from the wagon so I can throw a sneakered foot on top of the hitch.
He grabs hold of my arm and pushes me up so I’m balanced on it. He says, “Jump,” and I do.
But I’m not sure why.
I guess this is growing up.
Dad lets go of my arm, backs up onto our decidedly not-green lawn. “Looks okay to me.”
He’s about to respond, his head tilted a little off to the left like he does when he’s thinking, when my mom, who is inside the house, lets out a scream.
My dad stops.
The world stops.
I choke mid-inhale, waiting, not sure what kind of scream this is. When the noise becomes clear, she’s screaming my name.
Dad is about to offer to go inside on my behalf. I know he’ll offer. But he knows I’ll shrug it off.
I jut my chin at my four-year old sister, who is playing on the lawn with an underinflated football. “Stay here, Ori,” I order.
And dad says, “If it’s bad…”
I know what he means so I don’t waste my breath on a response. I run up the three concrete steps, swing the screen open, and catch sight of my mom in the kitchen. She’s covered in blood.
Well, not covered. But there’s enough to turn my stomach.
Blood and me don’t get along. For good reasons.
But mom needs my help. Not dad’s. Certainly not Ori’s. My help.
Even now—bloody and upset—the kitchen is really where my mom’s at her best.
I step further inside. “What did you do this time?”
Sometimes she’ll say her vision blurs. Or her hand jerks. Her muscles get weak. Sometimes she’s just tired out. Mom’s an ex-junkie and she’s reminded of that every day of her life. And I am too.
“The knife… it slipped,” she says.
I pull her hand close. Her index finger is cut open along the secondary fold line. And it looks deep. Maybe to the bone.
I take her hand in mine, putting pressure on the wound without finding a pair of latex gloves first. Her blood is mine, after all.
“They sell pre-chopped pecans these days, you know that, mom?”
“They’re more expensive,” she says.
I laugh a bit. “That’s the truth.”
Mom relaxes. I do too. This is our life. Better than anyone, mom understands me.
I’m trying to force the Band-Aid to hold the wound closed, when Ori, who doesn’t listen, who doesn’t get any of this, not at all, runs into the kitchen. She has dirt smeared under her eyes like the Friday night Hamlin High footballers do.
Both mom and I yell at the same time: “Stop.”
Ori freezes on the spot, like it’s some kind of weird game.
I haven’t had the heart to tell her the footballers don’t use actual dirt.
But then Ori’s face slips. Tracks run from her eyes until she looks like we don’t bathe her.
I guess it sounds as if we’re mad at her. But we’re not.
Mom’s upset about all the loose blood. I’m only angry—and a bit nauseated—and taking it out on my kid sister like I might hate her for something that’s not her fault.
But isn’t not mine either.
I used to think this anger would, I don’t know, fade. Instead, something inside me simmers, even now. Last summer I convinced myself it was a little devil, or The Devil himself, brewing inside of me. And I can’t tell you how much I liked thinking the anger didn’t really belong to me.
Blaming it on someone—something—else felt damn good.
I’m holding my mom’s hand too tight, listening to Ori cry. Mom’s whole body tightens, as if anger transfers from body to body easy as all that.